Lightning Rod Balls Can Spark Interest

Times Staff Writer

Question: You've written about the popularity of weather vanes as a collectible. In recent travels through New England, we came across some ornamental lightning rod balls on the roof of a barn. After a little negotiation with a Vermont farmer, we were able to buy two for about $30 each. How popular are they among collectors?--B.E.

Answer: They've remained quite popular among collectors over the years.

One big factor in their favor, of course, is that they are among a growing number of collectibles that have risen in price amid major demand for almost anything that can be put into an Americana category. Generally, such items have at least two characteristics: They have historical value and they evoke nostalgia.

According to catalogue prices, you're in the ballpark as long as the lightning rod balls are in good condition--that is, no cracks. Prices appear to range from a few dollars each to $100 or more.

Value also turns on rare patterns and interesting color as well as condition. White and blue appear to be the most common colors and would therefore have the least value. Amber, red, pink and yellow are among the more sought-after colors.

From the middle of the 19th Century through the first half of this century, glass balls were used to decorate lightning rod systems usually found in rural America. The rods, placed on the roofs of homes and barns, did not depend on the glass decoration to make the lightning rod system work.

According to collectors and catalogues, there were about 36 shapes and sizes of lightning rod glass ball decorations produced in a period of about 100 years. Each of these shapes has been documented to the point where collectors know which shapes and colors were produced by which manufacturers.

Caution: Fakes have been manufactured in recent years, and the would-be collector should be cautious before making a purchase. The old saw--if it looks too good to be true, it probably is--applies here too.

Q: I saved my considerable collection of toy soldiers, which I put together as a youth. Do you have any guidelines for me to follow, if I put the collection on the market?--F.E.

A: One point of interest to collectors is the original box the soldiers came in. With some collectors, we're told, the box can count--believe it or not--for up to one-fifth of the value of the entire collection. One reason is that the box can provide evidence as to the set's manufacturing date.

As with most other collectibles, condition counts for a lot in evaluating the worth of both the box and its contents. In this context, original paint is prized over pieces that have been touched up.

Also, check with collectors, dealers or reference works to find out how many pieces were originally in each set of soldiers. Having a full set can greatly enhance its value.

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